As the country’s most popular ski destination, Colorado draws snow sports enthusiasts on a year-round basis. While the state’s slopes and resorts offer plenty for skiers of every skill level and age, there’s something to be said for the unbridled sense of adventure of backcountry skiing.
Sometimes referred to as “off-piste” skiing, this adrenaline-packed snow sport ditches well-groomed trails and crowds for a more uncharted approach into Colorado’s wilderness. Though it does present the hazards of avalanche, exhaustion, tree wells and rock fall, with finely attuned navigation skills and the proper training, backcountry skiing is the perfect snow sport for thrill-seeking lovers of nature.
With stunning scenery, all kinds of terrain, and some of the best snow consistencies in the US, it’s no wonder that backcountry skiing is quickly becoming a favorite Colorado pastime. If you’re wanting to try your hand at it, here’s what you’ll need to know:
Colorado Requires Safety & Training
With treacherous, untouched snow, few marked trails, and limited access to emergency aid, the reality of backcountry skiing in Colorado is that things can go wrong quickly. Experienced participants know that staying safe takes education, training, and preparation.
In addition to the backcountry-specific gear you’ll need to purchase, you’ll also need to take an avalanche awareness class. The classes train participants on how to avoid avalanches as well as demonstrating rescue methods should the worst-case scenario become a reality.
Courses are provided through the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) and range from single-day to three-day sessions. Delivered by experienced professional mountain guides, the training combines classroom and field instruction. Course providers and a full list of training opportunities can be found through the AIARE’s webpage.
Know Colorado’s Rules
While backcountry skiing is largely legal in most parts of Canada and Europe, the United States has relatively stricter legislation regarding its practice.
Before setting out on your first Colorado off-piste adventure, be sure to know the rules of the resort or the laws of the area in which you’re skiing. In Colorado, rules are generally governed by the mountain size and the snow types that fall there. If an area is listed as closed, it’s closed for a reason; failing to respect those boundaries will likely end in injury or death.
Colorado takes its avalanche-control measures extremely seriously. If an area has been designated by a resort as off-limits, it’s likely due to avalanche risk. In these cases, failing to understand and follow resort rules may end in tragedy. At the very least, it will inevitably lead to the revocation of your pass.
Select a Site that Matches Your Abilities
All off-piste adventures are required to match the ability levels of each participant. While you may have been drawn to backcountry skiing because you love a good challenge, safety dictates that backcountry skiers stay (to some degree) within their comfort zone.
When selecting a mountain, always keep your own skill-levels in mind. In Colorado, this isn’t just a safety measure; it’s the law. Among other regulations outlined in the Colorado Ski Safety Act, the state dictates that by law, skiers and snowboarders are responsible for riding within one’s ability level.
For beginners looking to test their gear and get the hang of off-piste skiing, you’ll want to try for sites with a low angle, low avalanche risk, relatively easy route finding, and a nearby ranger station.
Locations such as Hidden Valley, Loveland Pass, Vail Pass Recreation Area, Geneva Basin, and many others serve as excellent learning arenas for backcountry enthusiasts in the Centennial State.